Mickey Mouse debuted to the world in the 1928 animated short Steamboat Willie, and has since transformed into an icon recognized around the world. But the mouse’s status as Disney's exclusive property is under threat. As Ars Technica reports, Steamboat Willie is set to enter the public domain in 2024, and unlike in previous years, there have been no moves from Congress to stop that from happening. Once it does, in theory, anyone could use Mickey's image for free.
This is the third time the cartoon has been on the verge of losing its copyright protection. The first came in the 1970s, back when copyright terms only lasted 56 years. That meant every book, song, and movie made in 1923 was scheduled to lose its protected status in 1979, and Steamboat Willie would follow on its 56th anniversary in 1984. But in 1976, under pressure from companies like Disney, Congress extended the statute to 75 years, keeping all works made after 1923 from becoming public domain until 1998 or later. Mickey remained safely out of the public domain for another two decades. Then, when copyright terms were again scheduled to expire in 1998, Congress extended them a second time, this time to 95 years.
Now, the clock is ticking down for these older works once again as the 2018 expiration date of that copyright extension nears. Only this time, it looks like Congress may let them become public property without a fight.
Today’s constituents tend to care more about copyright law now than they did in 1976 or even in 1998. The rise of online streaming and easily accessible pirated content has made the issue more relevant to the life of the average person than ever before. The defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in 2012 made this clear to legislators. That bill, which would have empowered law enforcement to punish or block sites sharing pirated content, was so controversial that it sparked protests across the web. Because of the sheer scale of that public response, lawmakers are now hesitant to change any existing copyright protections, including those set to expire on January 1, 2019.
But even if those protections expire, Disney could still find a way to prevent rival studios from using Mickey’s image when 2024 rolls around. While copyrights are designed to be temporary, trademarks have the potential for serious lasting power. That’s because copyrights only protect a single work of artistic expression (in this case, the film Steamboat Willie), while trademarks are attached to images and logos that represent a brand (so Mickey Mouse, the character). As long as Disney can prove that Mickey has evolved beyond his first screen appearance into a symbol that’s synonymous with its corporation, he’ll remain a protected property. And if you take a look at their theme parks, cruise ships, media, and the dozens of Hidden Mickeys they've hidden in their movies, you’ll see that they can easily make that case.
But few works of art made in the 1920s have taken the same path to corporate dominance as Mickey Mouse, even other works made famous by Disney (like Winnie the Pooh, first introduced in A.A. Milne's stories in 1926). Even if Disney manages to protect Mickey, the public should have a big new batch of copyright-free content to access in the next few years.
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Steve Martin and John Candy starred in the holiday movie classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles, writer/director John Hughes’s first big foray away from writing about teenage angst. Martin played Neal Page, a marketing executive who is desperate to get back home to Chicago to see his wife and kids for Thanksgiving, but along the way is thoroughly aggravated by shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (Candy) and the many, many, many mishaps that befall the two throughout their travels. Here are some facts about the film that are not pillows.
1. Planes, Trains and Automobiles was inspired by John Hughes’s own hellish trip trying to get from New York City To Chicago.
Before he became a screenwriter, Hughes used to work as a copywriter for the Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago. One day he had an 11 a.m. presentation scheduled in New York City on a Wednesday, and planned to return home on a 5 p.m. flight. Winter winds forced all flights to Chicago to be canceled that night, so he stayed in a hotel. A snowstorm in Chicago the next day continued the delays. The plane he eventually got on ended up being diverted to Denver. Then Phoenix. Hughes didn’t make it back until Monday. Experiencing such a hellish trip might explain how Hughes managed to write the first 60 pages of Planes, Trains and Automobiles in justsix hours.
2. Howard Deutch was originally supposed to direct Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Deutch directed Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful for Hughes. Hughes decided to direct himself after Steve Martin signed on. Deutch got to direct The Great Outdoors instead.
3. Steve Martin thought the script for Planes, Trains and Automobiles was too long.
The comedian, who had written his own screenplays, thought the 145-page length of the script was a lot for a comedy. When Martin asked Hughes where he thought they might cut scenes, Hughes was confused by the question. Martin later claimed that the first cut of Planes, Trains and Automobiles was four and a half hours long.
4. John Hughes acted out the entire movie to a publicist hoping to work on Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Reid Rosefelt went in to meet Hughes for the unit publicist position. Rosefelt recalled in his blog that he found it strange, but admirable, that Hughes did not allow Rosefelt to see the script to the movie he would potentially work on and promote beforehand. After the two grew more comfortable with one another at their meeting, Rosefelt asked what the movie was about—he only knew Steve Martin and John Candy were starring and it was called Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Hughes then performed the entire movie for him. Rosefelt didn’t get the job.
5. John Candy arrived to shoot Planes, Trains and Automobiles with exercise equipment in tow.
On the first day of shooting, the crew brought in treadmills, weights, and other exercise equipment for Candy to use in his hotel suite. Martin said Candy didn’t use any of it.
6. The entirety of Planes, Trains and Automobiles was meant to be shot in Chicago, but there wasn’t enough snow.
Some exterior scenes were filmed in Buffalo, New York. Martin said that the cast and crew pretty much lived the plot of the movie. “As we would shoot, we were hopping planes, trains, and automobiles, trying to find snow.”
7. The constant delays on production on Planes, Trains and Automobiles were very beneficial to one actor.
In John Hughes: A Life in Film, Kirk Honeycutt wrote that one actor, who played a truck driver, was only supposed to have one line and work for one day. Hughes chose to keep him on standby. The actor ended up working enough days while the crew waited for the snow to come that he was able to make a down payment on a house. It’s very possible this was Troy Evans, who was uncredited, as the shy truck driver in the movie. He went on to appear, credited, on ER for the show’s final five seasons as Frank Martin.
8. Edie Mcclurg’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles improvisations impressed John Hughes.
McClurg, probably best known as Grace, Principal Rooney’s secretary in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, played the St. Louis car rental employee upon whom Neal dropped 18 F-bombs. For the first few takes, McClurg simply raised her finger and had a standard phone conversation with a customer. Then Hughes told her to improvise talking on the phone about Thanksgiving. She then came up with the stuff about needing roasted marshmallows and taking care of the crescent rolls because she can’t cook based on her own life. When she finished, Hughes asked her how she came up with those details so quickly. When McClurg explained she just got it from her own life just like he does with his scripts, he said, “Oh yeah!” She claims people to this day ask her to tell them they’re f*cked.
9. Steve Martin and Edie McClurg's F-bomb-filled exchange earned Planes, Trains and Automobiles an R rating.
That sweary tirade between Martin and McClurg is reportedly one of the scenes that made Martin want to make the movie. Its overuse of the word f*ck is also apparently what pushed the movie's rating from PG-13 to R.
10. In one scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Susan Page is watching She’s Having A Baby—another John Hughes movie.
In the scene that goes back and forth between Neal trying to sleep next to Del clearing his sinuses and Neal’s wife (Laila Robins) watching TV alone in their bed, she is somehow watching She’s Having a Baby, which wouldn’t be released in theaters until February of the following year. Kevin Bacon stars in that movie, and made a cameo in Planes as the guy who out-hustles Neal in getting a cab. Some people believe Bacon—who was officially listed in the credits as “Taxi Racer”—was playing his She’s Having a Baby character, Jake, in that scene.
11. A scene in a strip club was cut from Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
After their car blew up, Neal and Del went inside a strip club to use a phone, where Del got distracted by the dancers. Actress Debra Lamb didn’t know that her scene was cut until she went to a screening.
12. Jeri Ryan was cut from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but her scene wasn’t.
It was the actress’s first role. She was one of the passengers on the bus ride and couldn’t help but laugh at Martin and Candy’s antics. They re-shot the scenes without her.
13. Elton John wrote a song for Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Elton John and lyricist Gary Osborne were almost finished writing thetheme song when Paramount insisted on ownership of the recording master, which John’s record company would not allow. The song has never been released.
14. In the original ending of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Del followed Neal all the way home.
Hughes decided during the editing process that instead, John Candy’s character would be “a noble person” and finally take the hint from Martin’s character, and let Neal return home alone, before Neal has a change of heart and finds Del again.
15. In the scene where Neal thinks about Del on the train in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Steve Martin didn’t know the camera was on.
In order to get the new ending he wanted, Hughes and editor Paul Hirsch went back to look for footage they previously didn’t think would be used. Hughes had kept the cameras rolling in between takes on the Chicago train, without his lead’s knowledge, while Martin was thinking about his next lines. Hughes thought Martin had a “beautiful expression” on his face in that unguarded moment.